When 11-year-old Naomi Wadler gave a speech at last weekend’s March for Our Lives in Washington about the importance of remembering the lives of black women and girls lost to gun violence, the reaction was intense and immediate.
“Naomi Wadler is my president,” Hollywood actress Tessa Thompson tweeted. Brittany Packnett, a nationally recognised Black Lives Matter activist, tweeted the same, hailing Wadler’s “love and power”.
Kamala Harris, the second black woman elected to the US Senate, shared a video clip of Wadler’s speech, which was viewed millions of times.
On that Saturday, in the area set aside for speakers and organisers at the Washington rally, George Clooney, who had donated $500,000 to support the march, recognised her instantly, Wadler’s mother, Julie Wadler, recalled.
“He saw her out of the corner of his eye, and he stopped, and he grabbed her and he said ‘I know you. You are Naomi, and you are so eloquent’.”
That morning Wadler, who was the second-youngest speaker at the march – after nine-year-old Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther King’s granddaughter – had been worried that she was “going to mess up”.
Wadler and an 11-year-old friend had organised a walkout at their Virginia elementary school earlier that month. While many American student protests had lasted 17 minutes – to honour the 17 victims from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland – the two elementary school pupils had decided to add an additional minute to honour Courtlin Arrington, an African American teenager shot dead at her high school in Alabama in early March.
“African American women, when they are shot and killed … their names aren’t remembered, so I thought it was important to add,” Wadler explained on the day of the walkout.
This statement had gone viral, attracting wider media attention and leading to an invitation to speak at March for Our Lives in the capital.
To write her own speech for the DC rally, Wadler had watched – “like, 10 times” – the speech Parkland survivor Emma González had given days after the shooting at her high school. She had worked with her mother to take “all of my big bundles of feelings” and cram them into a speech.
When she went out on stage in front of hundreds of thousands of protesters, Wadler said she kept her eyes focused on just the first few rows of people.
“I am here to acknowledge the African American girls whose stories do not make the front pages of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” she said.
“It wasn’t until I said my ending ‘thank you’ that I realised how many people were looking at me,” Wadler said in a phone interview that Saturday night.
She knew that she had been on TV and that she had spoken at an event with, as she put it, “many people that were not unknown to me”, including Clooney, Jennifer Hudson, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato.
But on that evening, hours after she’d finished her speech, her mother said she still had no idea of the full scope of the reaction. “Naomi does not have any social media accounts – and she’s not going to any time soon,” Julie Wadler said.
As a result, her daughter had no idea “how viral this has gone. She doesn’t really understand the fact that she has been trending on Twitter all day. She has no idea of the volume”.
The day after the speech, even as the media requests from CNN and elsewhere were rolling in, the Wadler family left for a week’s holiday at a beach house in Delaware, in an attempt to re-establish some sense of normality for an 11-year-old who had suddenly been anointed as one of the voices of a growing youth protest movement. She would get to play in the sand, hang out with other kids.
“We’re going to take a break because Naomi needs one – and she wants to figure out what she wants to do about all of this,” her mother said.
Two weeks before she became an international sensation, Wadler gave an interview in her living room, a bagel clutched in her hand. It was the morning of the nationwide student walkout against school shootings, and she and Carter Anderson, her fellow 11-year-old organiser, were both excited and nervous.
“We went over the expectations: that this was not recess time,” Wadler said. “You’re not doing this to get out of school. How we expect to be silent, how we’re not gonna chant because we want learning in school to go on as normal. How if anybody chooses not to participate, we won’t give them a hard time. You don’t have to agree with people, but you do have to respect them.”
“There’s always a small chance that somebody might act out during the walkout,” Anderson said. “But we’re trying to express our feelings.”
In her speech later that month, Wadler would push back against the critics who said she and her fellow elementary school protesters were too young to understand what they were doing and were “a tool of some nameless adult”.
In person, Wadler was as confident and precise as she seemed on stage, with an occasional rhetorical hiccup as a reminder that she was only recently into double digits. “I have grown up in an area where shootings aren’t the regular, but they don’t happen un-often,” she explained on the morning of the 14 March walkout.
Alexandria, the wealthy suburb of DC where Wadler and Anderson live, does not see the daily gun violence that other American children face. But their elementary school had been among those locked down in 2014 when a serial killer randomly shot and killed a beloved local music teacher in a nearby home, one in a series of murders prosecutors later said were motivated by the shooter’s anger over losing a child custody case.
In June 2017, the field where the local Little League baseball teams practice had been the site of a mass shooting targeting Republican members of Congress. Lawmakers called CNN later with brutal testimony of dodging bullets and watching a House Republican leader drag his body across the baseball field, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
About a week after the shooting, the field was reopened to Little League players. The Republican Congress continued to oppose new gun control laws, arguing instead for new laws to make it easier to carry guns in the nation’s capital.
The 14 February attack in Parkland, Florida, had been more personal for Wadler’s family. Julie Wadler had gone to high school with Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg, a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. The parents had not been close in recent years but the night of the Parkland shooting, Wadler had gone to bed knowing that Guttenberg was missing, Julie Wadler said. When she woke up, she discovered Guttenberg had been killed.
According to Fred Guttenberg, Wadler “is everything you see – she is a great, mature, smart, sophisticated kid who’s just going to do amazing things”.
Guttenberg had shared a video of Wadler talking about the walkout on his Facebook page, which he said led the march organisers to ask her about speaking at the march.
When Wadler sat crying on her mother’s lap after the Parkland shooting, Julie Wadler said she had given her the same advice that many American parents offered in response to school shootings: be kind and reach out to kids who seem like they’re struggling.
Wadler had gone further. She said she had heard somewhere that “a bunch of schools were going to do walkouts” and asked her friend Anderson if he wanted to organise one.
Their principal had not been excited at first, Wadler said at a town hall meeting at Alexandria’s TC Williams high school in early March. “It has been a concern of some of the staff that we will not be safe on our own school lawn,” Wadler told the packed auditorium, to cheers. “And I encourage them to tell us how we will be safe in our own classrooms in the world we live in now.”
Her principal had come around, Wadler and Anderson said. For elementary school students, the school district had agreed that kids would be allowed to walk out on 14 March if their parents gave them permission.
Julie Wadler said she had been as surprised by Wadler’s walkout plan as her daughter’s principal. She herself is a moderate Republican who worked as a fundraiser for Republican members of Congress in the 1990s and currently runs a private fundraising and event planning company. She said she was not involved in any gun control or gun advocacy groups.
“There have been a lot of misconceptions that this walkout was planned by a lot of liberal parents, pushing their kids, and what I have found is there’s a cross-section of support from the parents driven by their children, not their own political beliefs,” Julie Wadler said.
Anderson, Wadler and a dozen other children who had helped plan the walkout were energetic as they travelled the few blocks from Wadler’s house to school together on 14 March, all of them wearing bright orange shirts, the symbol of gun violence prevention. Wadler and Anderson had produced, for the one journalist who showed up at the house, a bright orange press pack, with the name of their elementary school scrawled on the front of it.
Two hours later, as more than 60 students walked out of the school’s front door, picked up signs and formed a silent line, the mood had shifted. Some of the kids who protested were very young, as young as the kids who had been killed five years before at Sandy Hook, and almost all of them had grave looks on their faces as they held up their signs.
“Never Again,” Wadler’s sign read. It was bitterly cold and many of the students were not wearing coats, but they kept their focus, even as a few of them shivered.
The dozens of parents who faced them from the sidewalk in front of the school were also silent, many of them with their cameras raised. Midway through the 18 minutes, the whole line of children suddenly dropped to the ground and lay on their backs. Their parents watched, saying nothing. It was so quiet onlookers could hear the wind flapping the edges of the poster boards the children were holding over their bodies.
After the walkout ended and most of the students had gone back inside, Alexandria’s mayor, Allison Silberberg, had paused to shake hands with Wadler and suggested that she pursue a career as a lawyer, or perhaps run for mayor or president. Wadler explained that was not currently possible: under American law she cannot run for president, since she was born in Ethiopia and adopted as a baby. The constitution specifies that only “a natural born citizen” can become an American president.
Since her speech last Saturday at March for Our Lives, Wadler had taken much of the enthusiastic response in stride, her mother said. Mothers who were members of the tight-knit nationwide Ethiopian adoption network had been defending Wadler against any online criticism. But she has received two messages that have left her “absolutely overwhelmed”, her mother said, one from the family of Hadiya Pendleton (a 15-year-old shot dead in Chicago in 2013) and one from a sister of another woman killed by a stray bullet, who has written publicly about how much Wadler’s words had meant to her.
While she may not have much of a grasp of Twitter, Wadler had a very clear understanding of what it had meant to be given an enormous platform.
“It is my privilege to be here today,” she said at the rally. “My voice has been heard. I am here to acknowledge their stories, to say they matter, because I can and I was asked.”
She said later: “I hope people start having a less narrow view of things, and accepting that this is how it is, when it can be changed. And start thinking about the stories that aren’t told.”